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Decision extends parks standoff

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An icy standoff between the Columbus City Council and Mayor Kristen Brown over the fate of the city’s demoted parks director shows no signs of thawing.

The council voted 6-0 Tuesday night on a second and final vote to nearly double Ben Wagner’s pay for this year. That’s in the face of Brown’s demotion of Wagner to a lower-level position of marketing coordinator nearly six weeks ago.

The council also wiped away any money that could have been used to hire a new parks director. That pay scale now reads zero dollars per year in the 2014 pay ordinance approved by the council on a voice vote.

The decision means Wagner’s salary as marketing coordinator will rise from a maximum of $40,883 per year, as the position was envisioned, to $79,471 per year, which is what Wagner was making before the mayor reprimanded and demoted him Dec. 30.

The council has taken the stance that Wagner was demoted without a fair hearing and without just cause.

Several council members are on record arguing that Wagner has run the parks department extremely well, raised $2.75 million in private donations for the agency and improved public usage of the city’s recreational facilities to stellar levels.

“We don’t expect to hire a new director until this is settled,” council member Frank Jerome replied when asked by audience members how long the showdown with Brown could drag on.

The mayor said Wednesday she hasn’t explored any potential ways around the council’s actions, which tie her hands for the moment on hiring a new parks director.

“When I was elected, the people of Columbus asked me to lead a path of positive reform and refrain from politics as usual. As I’ve promoted new ideas, accountability and results, I’ve been met with inertia, passive resistance and outright opposition at times from the city council. Unfortunately, this is one of those times.

“Hopefully, the council will allow us to move forward in a positive and productive fashion soon,” the mayor wrote in an email.

Councilman Jim Lienhoop said the council still plans to hire an independent attorney who is expert in municipal law to determine if the mayor was within her authority to take those disciplinary actions against Wagner.

Lienhoop said the council is having trouble finding an attorney who knows municipal law to weigh in as an independent voice on the Wagner issue.

The main area of dispute is whether the parks director serves on behalf of the mayor — who can hire, fire or demote that person at will — or whether a four-member Parks and Recreation Board has responsibility for the agency’s top administrator.

City attorney Jeff Logston contends the parks director is a mayoral appointee but council members aren’t convinced of that legal viewpoint.

“We’d like to get an outside, independent legal opinion,” Lienhoop said Tuesday night.

“The city attorney serves at the mayor’s pleasure and is the mayor’s confidante.”

Several council members said they are willing to spend a few thousand dollars on an outside lawyer, but so far it’s been difficult to find another city attorney in Indiana or some other expert in municipal law willing to take the assignment.

Councilman Ryan Brand said he’s not sure how long it will take for the council to gather all the facts and opinions it needs to determine its next step on the Wagner issue.

“I can tell you we’re determined to do a thorough job and not rush to judgment on this. We want to be methodical in this process,” Brand said Wednesday.

Councilman Frank Miller said he has considered the possibility that Wagner could file a lawsuit against the city seeking a determination that he was wrongfully demoted, and that could lead to a legal judgment costing much more than a few thousand dollars in outside legal fees.

“Ben didn’t wish this demotion; is he willing to fight to save his job? We don’t know,” Miller said.

Lienhoop said Wagner was not treated fairly by the mayor, and the council is within its rights to explore alternatives.

“Ben had left work and gone grocery shopping with his wife (in the early evening Dec. 30). Mayor Brown called and said she needed to see him for five or 10 minutes. Ben went back to City Hall, and his wife and groceries sat in the parking for two hours while he talked with the mayor,” Lienhoop said.

“Ben was demoted. And there was no opportunity for review, a hearing or discussion.”

Brown has insisted that Wagner’s demotion was justified, saying in the job-reassignment letter that Wagner failed to implement financial control procedures and exercised questionable judgment in the use of department credit cards, using them for what the mayor called “several expenditures that violate city policy.”

In part, Brown also blamed Wagner for not realizing Snappy Tomato Pizza — a tenant that has now been removed from its fast-food kiosk in The Commons — had gone a year without paying rent to the city.

“The allegations are suspect,” Lienhoop said. “I don’t think he (Wagner) is responsible for some of the things listed by the mayor in the letter of reassignment. I see a wrong in that. It was an egregious act, and we need to see what we can do to try to help.”

Brand said it’s also a matter of the council lending assistance to the park board, which is left in limbo by the mayor’s actions.

“We see concerns coming from parks board members, and we’ve offered assistance to them as a council. This isn’t the city council and Mr. Wagner having conversations about trying to get this done. It’s a city department issue, and we need some clarification,” Brand said.

Council member Kenny Whipker was absent from the meeting.

Public opinion expressed by several of the three dozen spectators at the council meeting was split about evenly on the dispute, which shows no signs of being resolved anytime soon.

Some argued that the City Council was unnecessarily interfering in an executive appointment that falls solely under the mayor’s powers.

Others blamed the mayor for demoting someone who has guided the parks department to new heights and said her decision-making is eroding private-sector faith in City Hall.

John McCormick, owner of Kenny Glass Inc. in Columbus, said he’s upset by the level of acrimony in Columbus city government at the moment.

“Right now, I’m not willing to donate to anything the city’s involved in,” he said.

Richard Gold, owner of Simon Skjodt marketing and a supporter of Wagner’s, praised the demoted director and encouraged city council members to continue showing him their support.

“I used to work for a CEO who’d say, ‘In God we trust, but all others bring data.’ So, here’s the data that I’ve found. Usage of city parks has gone up 36 percent in the past five years; taxpayer funding has been reduced 18 percent in the same time period; and Ben Wagner helped raise $2.75 million in private contributions for parks since 2011,” Gold said. “Customer satisfaction is at a high level.”

Gold said private-sector leaders “invest where we have confidence in the leader. I encourage the city council to continue to push back on this.”

“The council is playing political games,” countered Steve Collins of Columbus, a supporter of the mayor.

“The mayor makes the call (on Wagner), and it should pretty much be over. It’s the mayor’s decision,” he said.

“This is between Mr. Wagner and his employer, the mayor,” said Russell Poling Sr. of Columbus, another audience member.

Poling said the city council should allow a new parks director to be hired and put money back in the 2014 salary ordinance to pay a new person.

“The city council shouldn’t tell the mayor what to do on this issue or hire an outside lawyer,” Poling said.

Park board members have generally supported Wagner, praising his commitment to the department and his skill at fundraising.

At this point, Jamie Brinegar, the parks department’s business services director, is in charge of the department.

On Tuesday, the council gave final approval to a $5,000 pay increase for Brinegar to bring his pay to $67,975 a year as long as he serves in the interim role.

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